Occupy Dayton: The mayor’s perspective

A behind-the-scenes look at what went down between local government and the Occupiers

By Dayton Mayor Gary D. Leitzell

No one said the road to free speech was an easy one. Just ask the demonstrators who make up Occupy Dayton. Lately, there have been many truths, half-truths and outright lies spread about the “battle” between the local branches of government and the Occupants. It’s time to tell the other side of the story — and as always, truth is stranger than fiction.

When Occupy Dayton first began demonstrating at Courthouse Square in October, no one knew exactly how long they would be there, but since they were not causing problems, nothing was done to remove them. Montgomery County actually owns Courthouse Square and there are clear rules regarding use of the square for events. Every event organizer must pull a permit to use the square, which comes with a strict set of limitations and restrictions as to the use of the public space. Occupy Dayton did not apply for a permit and the county did not enforce their rule because they couldn’t classify Occupy Dayton as an “event.” This wasn’t a problem until the permit holders for the Grande Illumination event asked the Occupiers to relocate their camp for three days.

To allow the holiday festivities to go on, Occupy Dayton was asked by the county to relocate to nearby Dave Hall Plaza, a City of Dayton-owned property governed by the same rules and regulations for all city parks. The Occupiers were told they could return to Courthouse Square following the holiday festivities but they would need to apply for a permit to maintain a 24-hour presence. An application was given for them to fill out and Occupy Dayton soon located to David Hall Plaza and the city allowed them to camp as a courtesy to the county.

Occupy Dayton was supposed to return to Courthouse Square after the tree-lighting ceremony. But as it turned out, the Occupiers liked the new location better and opted not to move back to Courthouse Square, which created a dilemma for their group, since city parks have rules that prevent people from sleeping overnight. To permit the Occupiers to camp would mean that the city would have to permit any other group — neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, Westboro Baptist Church, etc. — to also camp indefinitely at a city park. City Manager Tim Riordan delivered a letter to Occupy Dayton explaining if they remained in a city-owned park, they were expected to abide by all rules and regulations of the park, including no overnight camping. The letter was not an “eviction notice” as erroneously reported by certain media outlets and on social networks.

In the wake of the letter, some Occupy Dayton demonstrators began calling my office and sending me e-mails regarding our request that they comply with the park rules. Soon, I began communicating with them on Facebook to educate them on following a process and encouraging them to appoint liaisons who would communicate their views with local government officials.

So we had a choice — send in riot police and physically remove the Occupiers (which didn’t work well in the other cities that have employed that tactic) or educate and negotiate with them so they had a better understanding of how our city manager form of government works. And it was a pleasure interacting with the Occupiers; most of them were very polite and eager to learn.

On a recent Thursday morning, I met with several Occupy Dayton demonstrators at a local coffee shop and we had a great discussion that lasted nearly three hours. They had appointed people to represent the group and we were now freely communicating. I explained how their complaint is with the federal government but it was local government resources they were taxing. I also explained how we at City Hall emphatically supported their First Amendment rights to demonstrate their views, but that we had to facilitate their protest within the parameters of the law. A week later the group voluntarily removed their campsite from Dave Hall Plaza without incident.

My advice to the mostly young people who make up the Occupy movement is simple — make an effort to fully understand the system that is in place and with that knowledge, bring about the change you want to see in these United States. I stand with you in your right to express yourself and to stand up for what you believe in.

Reach Dayton Mayor Gary D. Leitzell at (937) 333-3653 or GaryLeitzell@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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